Georgia made life difficult for Austria in their opening World Cup qualifying game and are showing signs of improvement under a new coach. Alastair Watt gives us the inside view from Thursday’s visitors to Dublin.
What are the hopes for the current qualification series, and the reaction to the game with Austria?
The realistic aim is for Georgia to avoid bottom spot and anything higher than 5th would be seen as good outcome. Moldova are perceived as beatable home and away while Georgia expect to take points from everyone at home. Of course, they did not manage that against Austria in the opener but were unlucky not to take a point after a spirited second half in which they scored, hit the post and had one effort cleared off the line. The fans applauded the team off and there is cautious optimism about what the new coach Vladimir Weiss can do with the squad.
Austria were made to sweat late on, and combined with the recent friendly win over Spain, is there grounds for optimism in this group?
Things did not start well for Weiss with a draw against Kazakhstan and meek losses to Slovakia and Romania, but the win in Spain awoke football fans here from a lengthy coma of indifference. A positive result against Austria would really have cemented this new found enthusiasm but the performance was sufficient to have the Georgian fans at least not dreading the forthcoming double header.
In your last preview for us two years ago you wrote: “Football’s place as the number one sport in the country has come under threat as other sports, namely rugby and basketball, bring the country’s patriotic fans considerably more joy than the cycle of false dawns and disappointments.” Has anything improved in the meantime?
The situation is similar if not worse right now, with rugby excelling in particular while domestic football still struggles with poor results in European competition and match-fixing. A recent scandal involving frequent offenders Rustavi was punished heavily by the Georgian Football Federation which is now headed by former Schalke and Hertha Berlin midfielder Levan Kobiashvili. He has a squeaky clean reputation and is seen as something of a white knight for Georgian football. He’s had a year in charge so it’s too early to judge but the revamping of the domestic league, switching to a calendar year season, should secure better results in Europe at least.
As for the national side, it will take a run of sensational results to return Georgian football to a time when the people were proud of their team and players, something scarcely evident in the last 20 years.
There are two very tough away games now with Ireland and Wales. Can Georgia take points on the road?
The Georgians do not travel well, with only two competitive wins away from home in the last decade against Faroe Islands and Gibraltar. Draws in Finland and Greece in the last six years are the sum of their achievements on foreign soil. However, the Spain friendly win offers a slither of hope that Weiss knows how to set a team up for a smash and grab away victory.
Who are some of the main players to watch out for?
Vako Kazaishvili is Georgia’s standout player at the moment and will cause Ireland problems from wherever he is stationed in midfield. His recent move to Legia Warsaw to Vitesse Arnhem was seen as a step up due to the opportunity to play Champions League football. Curiously, he has only played one game for the Polish champions so far, the 6-0 humbling at the hands of Dortmund. Defensively, Georgia lack the solidity of the days of Kaladze and Kobiashvili, but Guram Kashia is a reliable centre half who has performed to a high level in Holland for many years now. Goalkeeper Giorgi Loria thrives on busy games and can produce heroics from time to time. For Georgia to get anything in Dublin these two will need to produce their best.
Tornike Okriashvili is an unpredictable talent but the winger is probably their biggest goal threat, if he starts. Up front, Georgia continue to suffer from an absence of decent centre forwards. Levan Mchedlidze suffered a nasty injury on his last visit to Dublin and he’s back in the squad and probably Georgia’s best available option as a number 9. He has scored just three goals in 27 caps though.
Have Ireland’s performances at Euro 2016 changed Georgians’ perception of their opponents?
Prior to the Euros, Austria were probably seen as the group favourites. However, given their dismal display in France and the success of Ireland and Wales, there is no clear front-runner. Indeed, Georgia believe they can beat any of the other sides in the group and are keen to end their poor run against Ireland, especially given the fortuitous or last minute nature of some of the Irish wins. Having beaten Scotland (again) in the last campaign, they see Ireland as a side of similar quality and style, and that there is no reason why they should not be able to overcome the Irish as well, at least in the Tbilisi fixture.
Are there any Irish players that have caught the eye?
The Georgians follow the English top flight keenly so will be aware of most of the Irish players making regular starts there. Seamus Coleman, Shane Long and James McClean will probably be the most feared players in the Irish side just now. Meanwhile, the Manchester United devotees, of which there are many here, will know John O’Shea well.
The management team have probably caught more attention though, with Roy Keane obviously a world famous figure and Martin O’Neill also well known and respected.
Alastair Watt (@tbilisidon) is a Tbilisi-based Scot who covers Georgian sport for various local and international outlets
Images: Billy Galligan/amanwithhiscamera.com